Open main menu

Levenson - Butterfly Man - Chapter left.pngXVIILevenson - Butterfly Man - Chapter right.png

 

A TWO-WEEK notice terminating the Broadway engagement of "Sweeter Than Sweet" was posted on the backstage bulletin board. No reason was ascribed for the sudden closing which mystified both cast and public. Henry Colman, startled by the news, drank seven Martinis with a dash of absinthe one after the other. The chorus, in a panic because of the threatened departure from New York, went on a collective spree. All the boys, except Frankie Regan, decided not to go on the road. The spoiled darlings of Jules Monroe's chorus preferred Broadway to Main Street.

Howard Vee did not visit the Commodore Theatre during the balance of the run. Sidewalk gossip spread a story that he was seriously ill. A morning newspaper writer ventured to surmise that Henry Colman had taken advantage of some technicality in the lease-hold to dispossess the youthful producer. Because of the shockingly unexpected disruption of their personal plans, the company lost its carefree mood. On the closing night a farewell party was given by Willis P. Flint. It did not help to revive spirits. Several of the principals, including Ken, failed to appear at the party, at which the guest of honor was Myra Malloy. "Ga-ga" had succumbed to Flint's generosity, and had become his acknowledged "'girl friend." At this party, which had been well advertised in the press, a telegram was received from Howard Vee. It read:

SWEETER THAN SWEET COMPANY
CLUB ELYSIA
NEW YORK CITY

MY DEAR FRIENDS CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH INCLUDE THE PREPARATION OF A SPLENDID NEW ENTERTAINMENT FOR NEXT SEASON MAKE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO BE PRESENT AT ELYSIA TONIGHT STOP I HAVE ARRANGED A FULL SEASONS TOUR FOR SWEETER THAN SWEET STOP TO DO SO REQUIRED THAT THE SHOW CLOSE TONIGHT STOP I KNOW YOU WOULD RATHER WORK TOGETHER FOR ANOTHER HAPPY YEAR I AM SURE YOU APPRECIATE AND UNDERSTAND MY ACTION STOP MY THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR THE SUCCESS YOU HAVE GIVEN ME AND MY SALUTATIONS TO THE GREATEST TROUPE OF TROUPERS ON THE AMERICAN STAGE.

HOWARD VEE

Cheers greeted the reading of this wire by Harry Berg. Willis P. Flint proposed a toast to Howard. Myra Malloy drank to Howard in gin and ginger ale, which she preferred to sparkling Burgundy. "Who," she asked, rolling her blue eyes mischievously, "will now propose a toast to Ken Gracey?"

At midnight, the liner King George V sailed from New York. Howard's name was on the passenger list. Ken was, however, the only person who was at the dock to wish him God-speed.

After the gangplank had been raised, Ken returned to the Mercedes, now his own property. He drove swiftly up the west side of Manhattan, through Riverside Drive to the exclusive suburb of Riverdale, a quiet old neighborhood of residences lying within the city limits of New York.

A Filipino man-servant would close up the house in the morning. Meantime Ken would stop there for one more night—alone. He was nervous. The road was dark, the little white house lost in shadow.

Nothing, nothing could make him forget the perfection of the past weeks. He had been so calm, so thoroughly at peace.

No one knew he had nightly slipped away from the theatre alone. He did not even trust the taxicab drivers in the vicinity of the theatre. He had hired a cab and had transferred to another before proceeding uptown, so that no one might discover his destination. Howard had lived with him. Howard had worked, composing, writing. The house contained no telephone. Not even Rutgers knew where his master had gone. A few weeks of perfect happiness had been enough. Howard was satisfied. He had sailed for Europe serenely, with no regret.

Ken, entering the house, was lonely. He had kept his word. Inside, in the little homey rooms, common furniture, a piano, shadows, silence, far off a hum of the sleeping city. Ken was lonely. On the kitchen table stood a bottle of liquor, cognac belonging to Howard, a bottle of bootleg gin. To quiet his nerves, he drank brandy, then straight gin. He went to bed and slept soundly. It was easy to forget—easy when liquor was near at hand. In comforting sleep, time fled toward a tomorrow.


The company quit New York with splitting headaches and spoiled stomachs. When, at five o'clock Sunday afternoon, the New England Limited left Grand Central Station, one principal and one chorus boy were missing. Ken Gracey, however, accounted for, was reported to be speeding to Springfield in a Mercedes which, some said, he had purchased second-hand from Howard Vee.

The new stage manager, Willie Warrener, an old-time road man, was scandalized by the actions of the company and threatened to plaster fines on each and every one of them if they did not sober up in time for the Monday noon rehearsal in Springfield. Annie Begley quieted Warrener with a bottle of Piper Heidsick. He opened it, imbibed it and returned for more. "Let's be friends," Annie said to him. She smacked him with a large wet kiss as the train pulled into the Springfield station.


Frankie Regan rode in the Mercedes with Ken to Springfield. The powerful car clung to the smooth surface of the Post Road. "We're in for a wild tour with this show," Frankie said. "You'll love the road. And if you don't, you can still get drunk in Podunk. Jules Monroe has put some of his best chicken in the line. You'll find Jimmie Durazzo a swell egg. We'll traipse around together, and by the time you hit Boston you'll forget Howard ever lived."

"I'm glad he's on his way to Europe," Ken said. "I'm glad I didn't go with him."

"You have the conscience of a saint," Frankie replied. "Suppose you had gone along, what then?"

"I am selfish. I wanted to be free. Frankie, I'm through eating my heart out. I'm through with what he calls lyric love and emotional orgasms."

"Meaning what?"

"I'm going gay."

Frankie took a flask from his pocket. "Have one, buddy?"

"No, sistie."

"Why not?"

"I gotta bring this bus to dock safe. Tomorrow after the show, we'll start the real lapping up. You pick your own shots, Frankie, and I'll play the game my way."

"My way is your way," said Frankie. "Let's go."


The Springfield theatre reminded Ken of Southern California days. It seemed lazily provincial, dishearteningly small-townish.

The entire cast was homesick. Old timers, like Rosemary Rose and Annie Begley, bravely fought their way through the indifference of the Monday audience to earn their quota of encores.

Ken's spirit was gone. He had lost the incentive to do his best. No magnet of ambition lifted him to his feet; no lovable friend stood in the wings, watching him, applauding him. This audience was stolid and unappreciative. Beyond the theatre wall lay an alien city. He was anxious to get the show over with, to find some other outlet for emotions and energy which were clashing within him. Rising before him as he danced was the figure of Howard, Howard whom he had sent alone to Europe. Howard had been New York and New York had been Howard. Now he had neither.

After the number, in his dressing room, narrow, dusty, cobwebs suspended from its ceiling corners, he examined himself in the mirror. He was at the apex of the pyramid. Youth flushed in his cheeks as he removed the make-up. His eyes peering at the reflection of his eyes, saw, however, no longer that frank expression which had been theirs on the day he first met Howard. They were harder eyes, colder eyes.

Frankie entered. "We can't do much in this town, Joe says."

"Who's Joe?" Ken asked.

"Durazzo. Come in, Joe." He held the door open. A stocky square-shouldered Italian entered. Ken remembered him as one of the new dancers. His hair was stringy and brown, his eyes shiftily blue, his chin firm, his hand clasp moist.

"Joe's been around the loop eighteen times," Frankie commented.

"Yeh, I been hoofing on the road for plenty of years. I was in Julie's first show, which gives you an idea."

"You must be over thirty."

"Over forty and I can still outlook most of the marcelined twists—without corsets."

"What about a little fun tonight?" Ken asked.

"Show people only," Joe said quickly. "I'm offa cruising towns of this type. The cops don't understand."

Ken opened a drawer of his trunk. "Is nipping allowed?"

"If you nip quick," Joe said.

Ken took a bottle of cognac from the drawer. "Gift of Gran'pa Colman." He opened it. "Joe, you round up whatever you can, male or female—after you dig into your first drink."


At five o'clock, a faint glow in the hotel court yard, a melancholy gray splotch, announced the rising sun. In the three-room suite which Ken had engaged in the Colonial Hotel, the party was ending. He teetered dizzily on his toes, placed an affectionate arm around Joe Durazzo's shoulder.

"You got great friends," he said. "I like you, Joe." He slipped a ten-dollar bill in the Italian's hand.

"Ill stay with you, Mr. Gracey, to help you to bed," Joe said.

"I c'n take care of myself. Where's Frankie?"

"He's gone to bed."

"Sensible Frankie," Ken said. "I'll go to bed." He closed the door on Joe. It had been a grand party. How the dirt had splashed! What joy to be untrammelled, to do what you please and to say whatever pops on your tongue!

Ken swayed before the mantel mirror. His hair was rumpled where Frankie had curled it in skewers when, draped in a checkered table cloth borrowed from the hotel dining room, he did the Samanthy Jane bit.

What a party-hound Joe was! You'd never know he was that clever; dull, colorless Joe, who sat in a corner, watched the guests arrive, prepared drinks, offered suitable suggestions, stunts and otherwise made himself useful. Ken decided to engage him as a dresser at once. He liked that Joe, the old tart.

As for the others: Georgie-Porgie Keene, the handsome blond youth from Pittsburgh who graced the party with his baritone solos and who suddenly got drunk enough to sing the famous "Bucket of Violets," a song Ken had never heard before, a racy Rabelaisian chantey which made everyone rock with laughter.

Georgie, so they whispered, was "profesh," and then only when he was well paid. He was handsome, firmly-built, a boy who was good looking enough to be in the movies, Ken thought, instead of the road troupe of "Sweeter than Sweet."

Inkie Ward was the tall, lean youth whose rapier-like wit was at its sharpest when he thought of something off-color—and he thought of nothing else. "I'm at my best in drag," Inkie explained, "but I'll do some high-kicks that make you ashamed of yourself." In dancing strap and not much else, Inkie vied with Ken at the interesting game of kicking at the moon. Ken, as usual, won.

Veane West was quieter, round faced, soft, like a pudgy girl. He objected to profanity, carried his handkerchief in his sleeve, used his hands with fascinating grace and powdered his nose occasionally, using a tiny "compact" and holding the mirror meantime expertly in his palm. He shared a room with Inkie, who explained that Veane could only be a sister to him, a darling sister, and nothing more.

Two chorus girls had been invited by Joe. One was, like himself, an Italian, a blonde Italian descended from the mixed Teuton and Latin race of north Italy. Her features were of classic mould, a thoughtful blue-eyed Diana she seemed—and Diana Mirina was her name. She had joined the "Sweeter Than Sweet" troupe early in the summer at the same time her husband, Johnny Keeler, had been engaged to fill a small part abandoned by another actor. At first used only as an extra dancer, Diana was now regularly in the chorus line.

Of Jean Pond, who brought Diana to Ken's suite, Frankie whispered: "A real egg. Lots of fun. Knows all the ropes." Jean was the oldest chorus girl in the show. She drank steadily all night, favoring straight alcohol, not even diluting it with coca cola in the fashion Ken had imported from Selma. In Jean's retinue was "Zigzag," a shaggy West Highland terrier who nestled in his mistress' lap whenever she sat down. Between Diana and Zigzag Jean was too busy to pay much attention to the boys.

The third woman present had been Mitzi Black, the slim yellow maid Rosemary Rose had engaged for the road troupe. Mitzi, so Joe said, could be made to perform if enough liquor was poured down the inside of her neck. Straight alkie did the trick. She changed clothes and sex with Georgie Porgie, and with a black cigar in her mouth, entertained the party with low-down Harlem obscenities. Unhappily, she had passed out soon afterwards and Joe, good old Joe, had taken her to her room in the boarding house for colored artists, around the corner.

Gone now, they were all gone. The party was over. Ken turned from the mirror to the room. The acrid odor of alcohol still filled his nostrils. Empty bottles, crushed cigarettes, ash-strewn carpets—he unsteadily crossed to the bedroom door.

He was alone. It was dawn. Exhausted by the long night, he sank to his knees. He rested against the door for a time. At last he rose to undress. When he was free of his garments, he entered the bedroom, into which the pale morning light peered gingerly, as if afraid to reveal the disordered bed, the stale liquor in glasses on the dresser-top.

He toppled face down on the bed. This weariness was good. Sleep, like death, would come easily. He would not have to think.


The door vibrated. House Detective John J. McInerney struck it again and again with his fist. The gold ring on his little finger cut into his skin. He turned to Mitzi Black.

"If you'll prefer charges, I'll open the door. If you don't, I can't."

"You mean arrest him?" the negress asked hesitantly.

"Yes."

"I gotta find that purse," she spoke almost apologetically. Then anger pitched her voice high; 'Til put all the damn fairies in jail."


At ten o'clock that morning, Ken Gracey, wondering if he were not dreaming, stepped from the detention pen to a place before the desk of the municipal court clerk. Annie Begley greeted him with a broad grin.

"I paid your fine," she chuckled. "They sure were ready to hang you. What kind of yeggs did you have in your room last night?" The old comedienne slipped an arm around Ken's waist, "Still lit?" she asked.

"I need coffee and ham and eggs," he said.

"And a night's sleep."

"Nonsense, I'll be fresh tonight."

"As a corpse."

"What happened to the others?"

"They'll have to get out as best they can. The judge wined and lobstered me when I was a chorus girl in 'The Belle of New York.' That's how I got you out. I'm not going to pay fines for all the c. s's in show business!"

The clerk handed Ken a receipt. "A jail bird at last," he laughed. "Come on—let's breathe the air of freedom."

"You may laugh—but it could have been serious. Who stole the dinge's purse?"

"How much was in it?" Ken asked.

"Her money for the week."

"And the fine?"

"Ten dollars for disorderly conduct."

"I'll give you a check for fifty dollars, Annie. You give Mitzi forty—"

"But don't you want to find the thief?"

Why should I?" Ken asked. "I had fifty dollars' worth of fun last night. I'm willing to pay."


Following the performance that night, Ken sent for Joe Durazzo. As he entered the dressing-room, Ken locked the door.

"What's up?" the Italian asked.

"How much did you pay the city of Springfield this morning?"

"Ten dollars. Why?"

"I'm not going to ask you any questions, Tootsie. I'm going to sock you in the jaw." Ken's long arm shot out. His bare fist cracked against Durazzo's chin. The chorus man staggered. His eyes opened in amazement.

"Wh—why—"

"No back talk, Joe. I know you took it."

"But Ken—"

"Tell the truth."

"I took it. Eleven dollars—she was blotto. I couldn't help snatching it."

"Sit down."

Ken put a hand on the Italian's shoulder. "I'm going to need you in my business on this trip," he said. "I can have you fired and will, if you misbehave again."

"What do you want me to do?"

First, be honest. If you steal a cigarette from me, I'll have you kicked off the stage by Equity."

O. K. Ken but I didn't know you cared about niggers. What if I did rob the dinge?"

I don t care for them—being a Southerner—but I can't stand a thief. Now there's a couple of other things on my mind. I want you to be my dog robber—take care of my clothes, dressing me when you're not busy dressing yourself. Be a regular valet to me. I'll pay you for that.

"That's all right with me."

"And finally, this is my first trip around the circuit. It's your eighteenth or so."

"That's right."

"I'm out for a good time. I need a guide. I want to hit the high spots. And make no mistakes en route. You're a friend of Ernie Emerson's, aren't you?"

"That queen?"

"No kidding."

"You bet he is."

"When I get to Boston, I want to throw a party for him."

"He won't let you. He goes in for that sort of thing himself. I hear he took care of you in New York before I joined the show."

Ken flashed the platinum wrist watch before Joe's eyes.

"You're in," Joe chuckled, "or at least part way."

"In more ways than one—"

"If you want to be. But—" Joe looked around, "you ain't got nothing to wear at a drag, have you?"

"No."

"I'll take you where you gotta go for the right kind of togs, when we hit Boston."

"Right you are, Josie." He held a hand outstretched to the Italian. "Is it agreed?"

"And how!"

Joe shook Ken's hand. Ken nodded in the direction of the corridor. "Unlock the door," he said, "and get Frankie and that Jean Pond. Tonight we'll have a quiet, private party."

From the drawer he took a bottle of "alkie." He gulped a raw mouthful. The crude spirits seared fiercely into his stomach.

"You shouldn't drink that stuff straight, Ella," Joe remarked as he turned to go. "Bad for the brain."

"I don't need a brain," Ken said soberly. "Brains remember. I want to forget."